“Spoiled Journalists” – Why Communicators Should Support MENA’s Declining Media Sector

The Gulf’s media has had a shocking year so far, with a series of journalist layoffs in the UAE. Is there anything that communicators can do to support the journalists they work with?

I’ve been around the block, and I’ve read, seen and done so many bizarre things in my profession that I’m rarely phased. But there’s a moment once in a blue moon when I have one of these moments where I’m reliving Arsenio Hall.

What set me off was a piece published by PR Week Middle East. The journalist had interviewed a Dubai-based public relations practitioner. The title was “Journalists and Social Media Influencers are too spoiled.” I’ll share just one quote from the piece, which you can read after subscribing to PR Week.

Social media influencers and journalists are being so spoilt and most brands raise the bar very high because they send expensive gifts and also, they have been bombarded by hundreds of pitches a day. This will make it near enough impossible for our brand stories to get noticed in the sea of emails flooding to their inbox – as well as the number of gifts they receive.”

Firstly, I don’t understand how any PR person can lay the blame on the media when the gifts are being sent by the PR people (Santa, why did you bring me so many presents this year?). And secondly, at least for much of the media, this just isn’t happening.

The Media is Collapsing

Over the past month I’ve heard first hand about three dozen journalists being fired from two of the largest publishers in Dubai, the Gulf’s media hub. They’re either being offered salaries which are up to a third lower than what they’re currently making, or they’re being laid off because the ad money is being put into digital (read Facebook and Google).

Why does this matter to communicators? Firstly, the expertise of these journalists is invaluable; they know their beat given their local experience (most journalists are expats, and new journalists often come from outside of the Gulf) and they’re able to put stories into context (one journalist who was laid off from Gulf News is probably the best investigative journalist in the Gulf today). Secondly, like in other parts of the world, the number of public relations people is increasing, and the number of journalists is decreasing. Publishers are increasingly turning to freelancers, not just to provide copy to but actually run publications (they’re cheaper, as their direct and indirect costs are lower – think no medical insurance, no end-of-service benefits etc).

What is different in the Gulf is that without employment, expats must leave. There’s no gig economy to speak of, as individuals aren’t free to take on multiple roles/jobs (unless they’re nationals), and few ex-journos are willing to set up content shops given the costs of visas and setting up business licences. In addition, those journalists who remain are frequently finding themselves overextended, and they’re being asked to take up non-editorial activities, be it supporting on sales pitches, or arranging events.

How Can Communicators Help?

While I’d like to think that the global decline in print media is reversible, I’m not that naive. However, as communicators we have to play a part in supporting the journalists we work with (I’ll always have a soft spot for the media, partly because I respect what they do and partly because I don’t want my job simply to be about working with influencers).

Firstly, we’ve got to clearly state why earned media makes sense to our clients. In an age where trust in other media types is falling, much of the public still believes what they read in their newspapers and magazines. We’ve got to go further than this, and start looking at how we can work with media outlets on concepts such as native publishing. If media engagement matters to us, we have to think how we can support these outlets financially whilst ensuring that editorial and sales lines don’t blur (much of what we do with influencers is paid).

Secondly, I think many of us would benefit from spending a day on the media side. The person quoted in the PR Week article is right in one respect – there’s far too many pitches being made, pitches which aren’t relevant and which add little value to the audiences we’re trying to engage with and influence. We’ve got to move away from the mass-blast press release, and start thinking more critically about how we can create content that is both right for a publication in terms of its audience, and is of a high enough quality for the editor to say, “I’d like to run this piece.”

What I feel will eventually happen is that regional brands will start to move in the direction of organizations in Europe and the US by hiring former journalists as in-house content heads. A part of me would welcome this (the quality of content put out in this region needs to be drastically improved), but a part feels that we’ve got to think long and hard as to how we can work with the media industry to explain why they matter and how they should be considered a critical piece of both communications and advertising strategies for organizations in the region.

Given that last thought, I do hope that the Middle East Public Relations Association (MEPRA) will also step up and support the media sector; MEPRA shared the PR Week story without any comments on its own stated view for or against the “spoiled journalist” opinion. We need leadership in this space, and it’s got to come from industry bodies.

As always, I’d welcome your views.

Saudi Gazette and the end of print for the Gulf’s papers

The Saudi Gazette has been a print paper for four decades. Going forward, the paper will be digital only.

It’s started. The first major paper in the Gulf has shifted to digital only. Last week, the English-language daily Saudi Gazette announced that it’d be printing a paper copy for the last time. You can see the full announcement here. I’m also quoting from the article.


This is the last hard copy of your favorite newspaper.

No, this is not a requiem for Saudi Gazette. We are not saying Adieu.

We are greeting you with “Hello tomorrow!”

This, in fact, is a new dawn for the newspaper.

Change is the law of nature. Those who do not keep pace with change lag behind.

The newspaper industry has also undergone a sea change in recent years. News no longer breaks on the pages of newspapers.

The reading habits of readers have also changed. They scan headlines on the go and read what interests them at the time and place of their convenience.

While journalism will not die, print is definitely in its death throes. Many big banner newspapers have ceased publication.

In the US more than 500 local newspapers closed between 2004 and 2019. In the UK, some 245 newspapers have ceased publication since 2005. In Canada some 27 dailies have stopped printing.

These include big names like The Independent, The News of the World to name a few.

So in keeping with the times, Saudi Gazette too is going totally digital. This will give us a better and faster platform to keep you abreast of the developments taking place around you and around the world.

We are no longer restricted by column length and width. Now the canvas is wide open.

As we focus on digital dissemination of news, we assure you of exclusive quality content.

The references to Western media who have gone online only are, to me at least, misleading. We’re in a different market, where advertisers are spending less online than their counterparts in the UK or the US. Consumers here are increasingly wanting digital offerings, but they’re not paying for these services, unlike papers such as The Times or the Washington Post. And would the region’s readers pay for the content that the local papers are producing?

For the majority of newspaper publishers in the Gulf, print still makes up the majority of their revenues. And print matters as well when it comes to recognition. No self-deserving publisher in the Gulf would forego print if they had the choice (there’s long been talk of that number of UAE-based publications would go digital only).

I wonder who is next. Now that the Saudi Gazette’s publisher Okaz has crossed the Rubicon of announcing that they’re dropping print, who will be the next print to go online only. And what will this mean for their editorial. If a Gulf newspaper can’t make ends meet with a paper edition, there’s no way they can afford the same editorial staff with digital-only sales offerings.

My feeling is that this also reflects the views of certain individuals in government, who want to invest primarily in a single publication as a means to get their message out. While there’s still plenty of money which is being invested in publishing by these individuals, there’s less interest in media plurality. It’s neither helpful to promoting certain narratives, nor is it lucrative.

What does it mean for the PR industry? At its best, more focus on improving online media outlets, including more accurate numbers when it comes to readership and reach. At its worst, it means fewer journalists to work with as online-only publications slim down and focus on translating news from Arabic to English and vice-versa.

I love the Saudi Gazette, and I’ve worked with many of its staff. I hope that they are able to find a way to thrive in this new environment, both editorially and financially. As for the rest of the media industry, expect more digital-only announcements sooner rather than later.

The Truth Why Print is Struggling in the Gulf – It’s Ownership

As newspapers in both the US and Europe have shown, there’s still money to be made in good journalism. Good quality reporting is key, and that’s where we need investment.

It’s pretty rare these days that I’m moved emotionally by an article, but this one yesterday in the UAE’s The National managed to do the job. It was a commentary piece on how print can not just survive but thrive in today’s digital world.

While the article meant well, there were so many flaws that I had to write a counter-piece. One of the arguments used was media will have to specialize and focus on audience segmentation – they’ve been doing this for years through B2B publishing. Another was the need for publications to embrace social media – most journalists and publications are online, but it’s rare for digital advertising to replace print revenues.

As a former journalist, I’m passionate about the media. As a communicator, I value the ability of a professional journalist to cut through the crap and get through to the heart of the story, to report the news in a way that the publication’s readers will both understand and appreciate. Granted, we now have a plethora of ways to reach our target audiences, including social media and influencers, but nothing beats a great news piece or feature item. At their best, the media are impartial, influential and engaging.

It’s no secret that newspapers in the Gulf have struggled of late. Advertisers have moved marketing budgets online, mainly to the detriment of print. This isn’t a local phenomenon, and the issue has been discussed at length in the West for years. One answer is charging for content – the likes of the New York Times and the Washington Post have used paywalls to drive revenues. They’ve found that people will pay for good content.

The idea has been suggested here too, to charge for content to develop a new revenue stream. The question is, would you pay for locally-produced media? Is it of a high-enough quality for readers to subscribe and pay? My feeling is no. Compared to the US and Europe, there’s little original news or investigative journalism. This is understandable, given who owns many of the newspapers in the region. Publications here are often used to relay a government viewpoint, which explains why there’s so little variation in what you’ll see from paper to paper.

The countries where print thrives promote a plurality of viewpoints. Look at India, where print is thriving. If the print industry wants to succeed, it’s going to have to invest heavily in reporting news that readers want, rather than what owners want to publish. Print has a future, including in the Gulf. But we’ve got to think about what readers want, and will pay for if the media is to become a service people will want to pay for. Otherwise, we’re looking at a slow decline for what once was a thriving industry. I for one hope that day will never come.

Jamal’s Legacy – What PR Must Learn & Do Differently

Jamal was not only a remarkable journalist, but he was a wonderful person. I miss him.

It’s been over a month and I’m still in shock at what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who died last month while at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

I knew Jamal. I first met him four years back at a SAGIA event in Riyadh. He was working with HRH Prince Al Waleed Bin Talal at the time, as a media adviser and the head of the soon-to-launch Al-Arab television channel.I knew of Jamal; he was the Arab World’s best-known journalist. Jamal was known for his bravery in tackling taboo subjects, and for being able to read the public mood better than anyone else. Jamal wrote for his readers, not his bosses. He’d twice been fired as editor-in-chief of Saudi’s Al-Watan newspaper. He was a journalist that I admired, both for his courage and also for his character (I’ve never met any editor-in-chief in the Arab world who was more open, more accessible and happier to talk than him – Jamal didn’t have an ego, but rather an appetite for debate and good conversation).

The coverage of what happened to Jamal has been extraordinary. One of the outcomes has been the beginning of a debate about the issue of freedom of speech, with one particularly brave piece by Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg in Arab News (please do read the piece).

I want to focus this blog post instead on the role and responsibility of the PR industry, given the increasing amount of work done by agencies with governments around the world.

The “Everyone Should be Represented” Argument

There’s an argument that is often shared in the PR industry that everyone deserves reputation. This is the line used by individuals such as Lord Tim Bell. This defense, which is akin to the legal requirement for everyone to be offered legal counsel, misses two vital points. The first is the need for equal standards to be applied to all. To quote the previous Chair and Chief Executive of the Public Relations Society of America, Rosanna M. Fiske, who wrote in the Financial Times in 2012:

“We believe every person or organisation has the right to have its voice heard in the global marketplace of ideas. But for PR firms to represent dictatorships that do not afford that same freedom to their own people is disingenuous towards the liberties of a democracy and to democratic societies’ reputations as marketplaces for dissenting ideas.”

Even if we accept this argument, what do we do for those with no money? This is why the legal analogy is false. A lawyer will always be appointed to a defendant, no matter his or her financial status. This is not true in the PR industry. Many agencies do pro-bono work, but I doubt few are representing vulnerable groups in war zones. And that means by default that these people are voiceless. No one knows their stories.

What We Say Isn’t What We Do

What I’m often struck by is the dissonance between people’s views and their actions, especially in developing markets. I’ve seen time and time again senior practitioners tweet a piece of news about democracy in their own country, and yet they’ll be working for an organization that is being criticized by NGOs or single-issue groups. Are they aware of how they look? We live in a digital world, where people try to cultivate a different online persona. And many in the communications industry should know better when it comes to the difference between our online views, which are shared publicly, and our actions.

We also have a bigger issue to face, which is that of denial. When asked about a controversial client action, the most common response from a PR agency was, “we didn’t know.” We’re supposed to be consultants and analysts, the people who know what’s happening both externally and internally. This argument doesn’t wash with me. And it erodes the credibility in our own competency.

When we engage with anything that whiffs of controversy, we should be aware of what we’re getting ourselves into, and we should also be clear with clients as to our red lines. Once those red lines are crossed, we should walk away.

What has happened to Jamal is a tragedy. In the light of his death, I hope that we can all learn to become a more responsible industry. That’s the legacy we owe to him.

Shock and Awe: What is happening to the Gulf’s Media?

The Gulf is known for many things, but a controversial media isn’t one of them. The region’s media are known for not causing a stir, and for generally towing the line. There are exceptions – some local, Arabic-language radio stations in the Gulf host phone-in shows. One of them didn’t go so well. Here’s the story from The National newspaper.

It was a call for help from a man who couldn’t afford to provide for his family that was cruelly batted down by a prominent radio host.

But in the 24-hours that followed, Ali Al Mazrouei witnessed a justice of sorts when the radio jockey was suspended and his plight was heard in person by the leaders of the country.

The 56-year-old, a father of nine, spoke of his struggle to get by on a relatively low salary and a large family.

When he phoned Ajman Radio’s morning talk show Al Rabia Wal Nas on Thursday, he tried to highlight what rising living costs meant for families like his.

“The expensive prices are a big problem; everything is too expensive, including fuel, and the income is low,” he said.

“We want to provide for our children but we can’t buy anything; when one cannot make his children happy what is the point of living?”

When he spoke of inflation and the cost of basic goods, the show’s co-host Yaqoub Al Awadhi interrupted him to say there “there are retired people whose salaries are Dh10,000 and even used to be Dh7,000″ before the government raised payments.

The anchor went on to suggest that someone who could not live on that amount must have poor skills in managing finances and does not appreciate what he has.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded to say he does not spend money on anything other than his basic needs…

“We want to do good, when we see someone like us, we pray for him and we try to help when we find someone poor like us,” he said.

The radio host replied: “Don’t give anyone anything, just hold your tongue.”

“I don’t accept that you defame my country and say the people are all suffering.

“The salary you receive is from where? Where do you feed your children from? This all doesn’t deserve gratitude?”.

Mr Al Mazrouei responded that “I am an original national of this country, I am a Mazrouei,” as the host started to mumble, “where did you appear in front of me now from?” an expression in Arabic indicating an unpleasant encounter with someone.

The ill-tempered exchange continued for some time.

When news of the argument reached Sheikh Ammar bin Humaid Al Nuaimi, Crown Prince of Ajman, he ordered the suspension of host Yaqoub Al Awadhi.

On Tuesday, Mr Al Mazrouei was received by the Crown Prince and the Ruler of Ajman, Sheikh Humaid bin Rashid Al Nuaimi, while Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, ordered that his situation be looked at immediately and his family helped.

Speaking to The National, the father-of-nine said: “This was the first time that I decided to raise this issue, because life was starting to close its doors in our faces. Instead of just worrying in vain every day I decided to take a proactive step.”

He said he does not want the host to lose his job.

“He jumped from topic to topic [when attacking me], it was so strange, but I say, may Allah guide him.

The second incident comes from Saudi, where a presenter on Bidaya TV told one of his guests live on air that his father had died (the video is below). The reaction was universal condemnation online, with a campaign that criticized the station for manipulating emotions for ratings. BBC Arabic has a full report on the story (it’s in Arabic, of course). A number of the station’s employees were suspended.

There’s been a great deal of change in the Gulf’s media over the past year. Is this an example of the change in sentiment which readers may feel on political issues seeping into other parts of the media? I’m not sure. But it cannot be coincidence for two events to happen in such a short space of time in a region which rarely sees such incidents.

As always, I welcome your thoughts.

Competing Media Motivations in the UAE’s Press (and what this means for communicators)

Communicators need to understand the competing agendas in the UAE’s press scene (image source: freepress.net)

I was once told, “to really understand a thing, you must know the reason for its purpose.” I don’t usually begin my posts so philosophically, but this quote seemed a fitting place to start when writing about the media in the United Arab Emirates.

An event caught my eye last month. The UAE’s National Media Council held a one day seminar, primarily for Emirati media professionals and communicators in the government sector. The event was entitled “The Future of Emirati Media”, and the below tweet from the National Media Council’s Chairman summarized a distinctly national view of the UAE media.

I’ve paraphrased below the key points from the above Arabic-language tweets and other material shared on the day:

  1. Work through the media to promote the national agenda.
  2. The media has a shared responsibility to work alongside state institutions and those present on social media to develop the sector.
  3. The media will contribute to the strengthening of the State’s leadership of the regional and global information sector.

The Foreign Perspective

In much of the West and East, the media is called the “fourth estate”, a group that is independent from government and which wields influence over society. Media seeks to report on issues of interest to its stakeholders (readers as well as owners), and will hold individuals, organizations and governments to account.

Essentially, the media has a number of roles, including to inform and by extension educate citizens on issues of importance, to act as a platform for different viewpoints and societal groups to share their own viewpoints and narratives, and to hold those in power to account.

In a country like the UAE, much of the English-language media consists of foreigners who have worked in other countries. Their view-point on what constitutes the media is often different to the national perspective.

What this means for Communicators

It goes without saying that for those working in communications, understanding both perspectives is vital for us to be able to engage effectively with different stakeholders. Media which are aligned with the first viewpoint are focused on the national perspective, especially as it relates to development and leadership. The media which is aligned to the second perspective is focused on sharing news that seeks to inform without the national development frame of reference.

These two viewpoints are also influencing where people work; many UAE nationals will explain that they’ve chosen to work in government communications as they believe it’s part of their contribution to the country’s development. Many foreigners in the media, particularly foreign outlets based in the UAE, will argue that sharing an independent perspective is important to truly understand what is happening in the country (and the wider region).

As always, context is key. Communicators and media need to understand each other’s motivations if we are to be in a position to engage and inform. Communicators and media need to understand these two basic perspectives and what it means for our work, be it talking within a national framework or sharing unique insights that are set within a governmental context. What’s essential here is that communicators appreciate both motivations, and they’re able to adapt as necessary to be able to interact with both media groups (and their respective audiences).

As always, I love to hear your inputs. Please do share!

The Six Essentials for Promoting Brand Building and Trust Among MENA Consumers (MEPRA/YouGov Research)

trust-in-blue-marker

Trust is one of those intangibles which we as communicators must always focus on. Trust, that notion of one person relying on and believing in a second person, is key to changing attitudes and behavior. But how do you build trust, and what channels should you focus on? These are the questions that we need to answer to be able to do our job of building and protecting reputations. So, where should one begin when looking to build trust?

Based on research by YouGov, which was commissioned by the Middle East Public Relations Association and which included a survey of across the six Gulf states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), Egypt, Jordan, and Lebanon, the place to begin isn’t online, but rather face-to-face. Fake media, less impactful advertising, and third-party advocacy are also reshaping where consumers in the region put their trust.

I’ve written three blog posts on the issue which I’ve already published on the blog, to explore the findings country-by-country, but here’s the big picture headlines from the research, which surveyed 4,475 people across the region.

1. Face-to-Face with family/friends is key to influence

It should be obvious to us all, and here’s another reminder for anyone working in communications/marketing. If you want to build trust in a brand, its products and services, then look at how you can engage the public through word-of-mouth. Across the region, 85% of respondents trust product and service recommendations from their family and friends. Nothing else comes close to these positive statistics.

2. Online works if you focus on friends and family, less so on social influencers

Over the past couple of years we’ve shifted for an incessant focus on digital to idolizing anything social. As the first big finding shows, in-person interaction is still the most persuasive. Online engagement does work, but it’s not as effective; 52% of respondents trust online recommendations about products and services from family and friends (interestingly, the percentages are highest for the Gulf and lowest for the Levant).

When it comes to social influencers, consumers are conflicted – 34% do trust social influencers/people with large online followings on products and services, compared to 29% who find them untrustworthy. A lack of transparency re paid/sponsored content probably isn’t helping. What’s helping even less is a tendency for social influencers in the region to say little which is negative when reviewing products and services.

3. There’s not as much trust in the media as we PR people may think

I was surprised by how low the scores were when it came to trust in the media as a source of information on products and services. The top-rated media was a brand’s own website (which should make sense, but given how bad websites are in the region this is still surprising), which scored 46% for trustworthiness. Every other medium scored in the 30s, which is a surprise considering how much faith public relations professionals put in securing editorial coverage with media outlets (for many, it’s still the essence of their day jobs). Blogs scored the lowest, at 31% trustworthiness (they were rated as untrustworthy by 30% of respondents). Should brands invest more in their own online media? The answer would seem to be an obvious yes.

4. Advertising is trusted almost as much as the media (except when it’s online)

The research is a mixed bag for the advertising sector. Out-of-home advertising such as billboards seem to be the most trusted by consumers, with a trust rating of 36%. Television is close behind with 35% trust, followed by radio at 31%. Online comes in last, at 28%. There’s more mistrust than trust for online advertising, with 33% of those polled not believing product and services information they see when displayed as an online ad. This may be due to misleading advertising around product pricing and availability. Whatever the reason for the low trust levels (especially online), marketers need to do more to win the trust of consumers, especially with trust in advertising dropping; 61% of those polled agreed with a statement that they trust advertising less today than they did five years ago.

5. Social media is a popular news source, but it’s not trusted thanks to ‘fake news’ concerns

Social media is becoming/has become a key source of news for most people (58%) in the region when compared to five years back (and there’s no distinction either by age, which is surprising). However, there’s still a trust issue. Almost half (48%) agreed they they have low trust in social media, which isn’t that surprising given the amount of fake/incorrect information out there. Which goes to underline the need for brands to focus on their owned media channels even more so.

The research did hammer home the power of third-party advocacy. When asked if they have more trust in what a third party says about a good or a service than what a brand says about its own goods and services, 65% responded by saying yes. Brands need to focus on winning over trusted individuals/groups who can influence consumers.

6. When it comes to social media, Facebook is King

If you’re looking to find out about a product or service in the region, it seems that Facebook is the place to go. Over half (53%) said that they found Facebook to be the most useful platform as a source of information (this rose to 72% for Egypt). Nothing else came close. WhatsApp was a distant number two, at 12%, and Instagram third at 9%. There was no mention of Twitter, and it would have been good to have understood where Twitter and YouTube featured as sources of information on products and services for the public.

So that’s the big picture for you. Keep an eye on the blog in the coming few days as I put out country-by-country reports. If you need more specific information, please do reach out to me.